Monday, 22 July 2013

Diving for Franklin's Gull

South African Shark Conservancy - off Gansbaai [Western Cape]
Reports of a Franklin's Gull sighted & subsequently photographed off Dyer Island in the Western Cape decided this weekend's agenda. We packed for Cape Town. Our intentions were to join the Zest for Birds crew for some pelagic-birding on the Saturday & head off eastwards [two hours up-coast] on the Sunday for the gull.

Dyer Island is less famous for its birds, outside the birding community that is, than it is for its White Sharks, sublime creatures of the deep & South Africa's APEX predator. Whenever I get the chance I take to the frigid waters & reacquaint myself with these magnificent animals. We would kill two birds with one stone, so to speak, and make a play for both the gull & the sharks.  

Research Station - Dyer Island [5 miles offshore]
Renting gear & underwater photographic equipment in & or near Gansbaai is simple enough. Sifting good from bad & settling for the operator who genuinely considers & prioritizes the potential impact of shark-diving & the associated chumming* (* the pouring of fish oil & rotten fish into the water to attract sharks) on the sharks themselves, over simple commercial gain, is much more difficult. Shark-diving is big business & that's fair enough, within reason. Very little unencumbered research [ie: divorced from funding-bias] is in evidence. Whether the process of baiting for sharks, to service the trade, has had or will have a negative effect on shark behavior remains to be seen. 

Shark-cage anchored off Dyer Island [400 yards off]. 

In that context & in the interests of responsible tourism we opted for an experienced operator generally respected for its White Shark funding & its annual financial contribution to institutions & related organisations conducting White Shark research. The cynics would argue that it's in their best interests to do so & that's undoubtedly true. Even so, they put their money on the table rather than under the table & that's more than can be said for some of the others.

Strip the bull to its hooves & the informed generally refute the ecological benefits associated with the trade as a veneer over, what is, ostensibly a very profitable commercial business.
Classic 'Jaws' - Mindless bullsh$t! Benchley ignorance.
Above the water-line is hardly comparable with what lies below

Like a drunk preaching sobriety to the converted it's a touch hypocritical of me, perhaps, to point out the honesty flaws in the system from which I imbibed myself. The point is I love sharks & White Sharks in particular. If diving creates awareness then that must count for something, surely? After the Kruger National Park White Sharks attract more tourists to South Africa for a singular activity than any other; including Table Mountain.

What of the Franklin's Gull? Setting foot on Dyer Island is always preceded by weeks of red-tape & the haranguing of closed-minded officials, an activity I usually avoid under normal circumstances & almost always for occasions which arise at the last-minute. We were obliged, therefore, to glass the shores from the boat some two to 300 hundred yards offshore.

We were, rather unsurprisingly, unsuccessful. Finding a vagrant, albeit an obviously different bird in & amongst the multitudes, would be difficult under most circumstances. From 300 yards the task proved nigh impossible. That said we weren't too concerned. We'll return, shortly, with the necessary charters and permits & ceteris paribus (all things being equal), record the bird for our 800 Challenge. Either way we'll give it another bash.

22 meters of water - visibility good [Winter]
Up above - hot air & nothing much else
Back at the boat it was time to brave the 15 degree waters & learn some humility. Visibility in winter is particularly good; usually 6 - 8 meters. The clarity makes for some intriguing interaction & ensures eye-ball to eye-ball contact. It's easy viewing. Walking the idly flapping rope from the boat to the cage anchored some way away is, however, a touch more trying .. [I jest - the rope is usually quite tight..].

Once in the cage your notion of what's up and what's down depends on the bubble-flow, a function of the hot air expelled when clinging to a wire-mesh cage jowl to cheek with a 5 meter, 2000 kg White Shark. Pee not in the wetsuit..!

Weighed down, leaden-footed & out of our depth, usually in the act of sucking too diligently on artificial atmosphere, most recall the insignificance of mankind away from his machines & her weapons. Down in these depths we feature on the menu; albeit on the third-class platter, but we're edible (barely) fare nevertheless. As an aside isn't it nice to know most spit us out in bowel-churned disgust. We clearly leave a sour taste in the mouth.. 
Incredibly difficult to spot even in clear water [5 m shark] - 6 meters away
Shark? Where..? Oooooh f"*kkk!* [*dammit]

Native to South Africa our Whites display an extraordinary propensity to propel themselves clear out of the water in hot-pursuit of whatever's on the menu. Some do so purely for the hell of it too! Some 60000 Cape Fur Seals call the island home and it is ostensibly for this reason that many of the sharks call these waters their own. Turning the sharks away from porpoising pups & enticing them to the cage requires some skill. 
Pre-breach (only in South Africa) 22 meter water -Dyer Island
'Say hello to the nice fishy' is not becoming of the mantelpiece.
Churning rotten fish into scum takes a great deal of practice. Sharks appreciate the effort and come closer to pay their respects. It's during these visits that interpretation becomes a beast of the imagination. Breathing becomes a snarl and curiosity is expunged for violent intent, hell-bent on cold-blooded murder! It simply isn't true. 

After a short while this 5 meter female made multiple passes across the front of the cage. Reaching through the cage to rub her flanks as she past me by was a moment that will stay with me forever. Yes I was crouched on my side of the bar & yes she might not have cared but I swear, hand on heart, she looked me in the eye & I'm sure she was just as curious as I. 

We come from different worlds she & I but for the briefest time we traveled in the same circles & crossed ways. Society insists on an enmity which is ignorant & put simply, a bucket-load of chum! When I learn some manners & have a grip on the local etiquette I hope to spend some time in these depths without the mesh. Now that's walking on water!
Hanging over the 'abyss of doom' - cold & not so lonely...!
Down below lurks the beast - A Benchley fiction!

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